How to make Scallop Shell oil lamps using only natural materials

Today, in the spirit of being frugal and eco-friendly, I am going to show you how to make your own lamp using only natural materials.

[Note from Rachel: These also make great presents, so this is Part 4 of my Frugal and Green Christmas Gift series, on the Touchwood Project website. You can find all the projects by clicking on this tag: Christmas.]

Decorating the fireplace for Christmas

Decorating the fireplace for Christmas

This I believe to be one of the earliest of human inventions and in all honesty, it is superior to the man-made, metal equivalent.

For one thing the parts are white and shiny, so reflect more light. For another there are many flutes thus allowing multiple wicks and thus variable brightness (the world’s first ‘dimmer switch’). Oh, and they are free, recyclable and beautiful.

Waiting for dark to be lit

Waiting for dark to be lit

Recycling a Scottish tradition

During the 17th – 19th centuries, and probably long before, traditional cruisie lamps were used to burn fish oil.

The upper bowl can be tilted to keep the wick wet so it doesn’t burn down

The upper bowl can be tilted to keep the wick wet so it doesn’t burn down

These were generally made of two metal dishes mounted one above the other, on the wall or hook. Now we are going to update this old lamp for the 21st century.

What you need

Scallop shells, rushes and vegetable oil

Rushes grow all over boggy fields

  • scallop shells or similar containers
  • vegetable oil or any oil that burns
  • rushes or cloth, string or matchsticks

Readying the shell

Eat your scallop. Clean the shells, especially the insides, so there is nothing to ‘go off’. This also helps with reflectance.

Place the curved shell on top of the flat shell

The flat shell will catch any drips

The flat half of the shell makes an ideal base, to steady the upper shell and catch any oil that may run down the side of the shell. It also helps you tilt the curved shell at the right angle to keep the wick in oil.

That is the shell done!

Making the wick

You can use anything that will soak up oil, including cloth, string and matchsticks. I use the traditional wicks made from the soft rush (Juncus).

Gathering the rushes

Rushes grow all over boggy fields

Rushes grow all over boggy fields

The soft rush has been used for rush lights and wicks from long ago. As it is nowadays treated as a weed or plant of waterlogged and overgrazed land, it seems a good plant to use.

Gather a few stems of soft rush by cutting low to the ground. It is the soft, white pith in the centre that you want.

You can try peeling the dark green outer fibres as you would a banana, but for high quality wicks and speed, try this:

How to make the wicks from rushes

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Insert a nail, key, bone or similar hard object into the rush, leaving an inch or so of rush to grip (with your teeth). Note, the nail goes right through the rush stem but leaves the outer fibres intact on either side of it.

The green rush is pinched with finger and thumb against the nail. One hand is holding the nail, the other is pinching the rush sides against the nail.

Insert the key into the rush

Insert the key into the rush

Now, keeping the fingers pinching the ‘nail’ at all times, push both hands down the stem, whilst holding that inch of rush firmly between your teeth.

Beginners will want to choose only a short length of rush, maybe 4-6 inches, to start.

You will find the white inner pith is pushed out by the hard ‘nail’, as it cannot pass either side of the nail because of your pinching the sides to the hard object. The pushed out pith will then magically extend, like a concertina.

An alternative method is to strip away one half of the green outer fibre (as per the banana skin method, then use the back of your thumb nail to push along the inner of the remaining fibre, thus pushing the white pith forward and out, like a snow plough.

Either way, you are looking for nice, plump wicks. They can be used straight away or kept dry for storage.

Add the oil

Traditionally the oil could be coming from fish, seabird, seal, whale or animal fat (as tallow). If it burns, you can use it.

The easiest to use, and handiest in a power cut, is vegetable cooking oil. You usually have some of this in the kitchen, though it does give of a bit of smoke and the smell depends on what it is. You can add scent with essential oils.

Be safe

Burning oil can cause other things to catch light, so be careful.

Whilst the shell itself is low-lying and thus pretty stable, it can be knocked, spilt or spread. Do not light your lamp when it is set upon something flammable. Wood and plastic objects burn. Things like tables, televisions, stereos etc. All serious fire hazards.

Do not leave a naked flame unattended. Do not let pets near (the vegetable / fish oil is very edible).

How to use

Fill the shell with oil, place one wick in the fluted groove of the shell (perfect isn’t it), leaving half an inch protruding over the end of the rim.

Get the wick tip covered in oil too.

The flat shell will catch any drips

Lighting the rush wicks

Keep the oil level high and close to the rim by repositioning the shell on it’s flatter, lower partner. Take care to get it stable and not having oil dripping over the edge.

Light with a match or similar flame.

Lighting the rush wicks

Lighting the rush wicks

Take care, please

Please take care! Ensure all fire, flame or heat is safe and out before you go to bed or leave the house. Accidents happen by their very nature when not expected. That said, many fires are started by electrical faults.

In this case, the safety is up to you. Fire and alcohol do not mix.

Final point

There is no point trying to replicate the light of a 100w lightbulb with candles or lamps. Instead, enjoy the calm and soft light of a natural flame.

Now run that bath and set up your lamps, with essential oils added, and relax. Who needs TV?

One response to “How to make Scallop Shell oil lamps using only natural materials

  1. Pingback: 5 DIY Oil Lamp Ideas: From Shadow Projectors to Wine Bottle Tiki Torches | Lights and Lights

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